FLORENCE — Valdosta State’s defense stepped up when it had to. Its offense grinded out a key fourth-quarter scoring drive. And the Blazers, who seemed liked long shots at mid-season, completed it as national champions.
Valdosta State won its third NCAA football Division II national championship Saturday afternoon, beating Winston-Salem State 35-7 at Braly Stadium, denying the Rams from becoming the first Historically Black College and University to win a national title in Division II.
The Blazers (12-2) returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and repeatedly turned away the Rams (14-1), forcing six turnovers.
“I want to thank our fans who stuck with us when we were 2-2,” said Valdosta State coach David Dean, whose 17th-ranked Blazers lost two of their first four games and became the lowest ranked team to emerge from the playoffs and win the national championship. “Nobody thought we could do it, but we’re a team, we’re a family, we’re one heartbeat and we’re national champions.”
It was Valdosta State’s first national title since 2007, its third in the last nine years and the 10th by a Gulf South Conference team, which is the best among all Division II conferences.
Cedric O’Neal had his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season for Valdosta State, finishing with 140 yards and a touchdown on 24 caries.
Blazers quarterback Cayden Cochran, whose family’s house burned down last week after losing their previous home in a tornado, threw a touchdown pass and ran for two more.
“It’s unreal,” Cochran said of his roller coaster of emotions during the past week. “I can’t tell you the support I have from Valdosta, and the whole state of Georgia, Macon, Atlanta. The whole city of Valdosta has been unreal. This team has been so close that every person, when they found out, came by and gave me a hug and told me they love me.
“They all responded in an unbelievable way.”
Valdosta State survived a shaky third quarter and led Winston-Salem State 21-7 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Blazers were flagged five times for 65 yards in penalties in the third quarter, and its offense sputtered to open the second half.
Meanwhile, the Rams’ offense, which came into Saturday averaging 42 points a game, finally broke through on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Kameron Smith to Jameze Massey at the 9:25 mark.
Massey finished with 168 yards receiving on nine catches, and the Rams out-gained the Blazers 412-316 in yards of offense.
Winston-Salem looked to make it a one-score game, driving 41 yards to the Valdosta State 4-yard line. But Jeremy Grable forced a Smith fumble on a quarterback sneak, and Chris Pope recovered it for the Blazers in the end zone.
Pope had 10 tackles, on for loss.
“That was a huge play in the football game,” Winston-Salem State coach Connell Maynor said. “We had just scored a touchdown. We had the momentum. We had the wind (at our backs). Our crowd was into the game. We had them on their heels. If we punch that in, there’s no telling what could happen. But they made a good football play to strip it and recover. Now our crowd and there crowd is up. Then they busted out a pretty good drive. It was pretty evident how big of a play that was.”
Valdosta State’s offense responded by going 80 yards in 17 plays and 7:30, both season-bests, capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass from Cochran to Quin Roberson for a 28-7 lead.
Cochran tacked on a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:27 to play after recovering a muffed Rams punt return at the 7.
Valdosta State’s defense frustrated Winston-Salem State’s high-scoring offense, and the Blazers took a 21-0 lead into halftime.
The Rams, who average 42 points a game, fumbled, were intercepted, punted and were stopped on downs three times in their six first-half offensive drives.
The last one went down to the Valdosta State 4-yard line in the final seconds of the half before Smith was sacked and flagged for intentional grounding.
Two straight incompletions from the 15 in the final 12 seconds turned it over on downs, and the Blazers kneeled down to run out the clock.
The Rams were 4-of-13 on third-down conversions and 2-of-6 one fourth down.
“Our offensive line and our running backs really put it on their back late in the game,” Dean said. “But I really want to commend our defensive coaches and players. They had a great plan and they executed it excellent, holding a team like that to 7 points.”
Leading 14-0 after one quarter, Valdosta state made it a three-score game on Cochran’s 1-yard quarterback keeper with 5:40 left in the half. That capped a 13-play, 72-yard drive that ate up 6:52 of clock.
“That was an outstanding drive that kind of changed the outcome of the game,” Dean said. “It kind of took them out of it. I don’t think they knew how to react since they had been blowing everybody out week after week. So it put a little bit of pressure on them being down like that early.”
Winston-Salem State envisioned a better start while trying to become the first of the Historically Black College and Universities to win a Division II title.
Valdosta State shot out of the starting gate, as Matt Pierce hit a big hole and returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
It was the second straight year the game opened with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Blazers made it 14-0 less than five minutes in, going 64 yards in eight plays on their first offensive drive, capped by O’Neal’s 24-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1.
It was the largest deficit the Rams had faced this season. Previously, they had trailed by 7 against Concord in the second game of the season.
After turning it over on downs at the Blazers 37-yard line on its first offensive possession, Winston-Salem State gave it away again on its second drive when Maurice Lewis fumbled and Valdosta State’s Lance Holder recovered at the Rams 49.
Their third drive also ended with a turnover when Blazers defensive end Tevin Davis intercepted a pass by Smith near the line of scrimmage.
Still, the Rams got defensive stops after each turnover, limiting their deficit to 14 after one quarter.
Smith finished 16-of-37 passing for 269 yards with a touchdown, while throwing two interceptions and being sacked four times.
Austin Scott surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the season, joining his fellow freshman O’Neal as the first tandem 1,000-yard rushers in Valdosta State history.
Bryan App can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @bappster on Twitter.